New Survey Provides Insight into Faculty Opinions on Tenure in Wisconsin

The role of tenure in U.S. higher education is changing dramatically. In 1969, tenured and tenure-track positions made up approximately 78 percent of the faculty, and non-tenure-track positions accounted for about 22 percent. By 2009, these proportions had nearly flipped; tenured and tenure-track faculty had declined to 33.5 percent of the professoriate, and 66.5 percent of faculty were ineligible for tenure.

This issue is particularly sensitive in Wisconsin, where decisions about tenure had been written into state law until the 2015–17 budget transferred oversight to the state’s Board of Regents. The move has raised significant concerns in the state, particularly among tenured and tenure-track faculty in the UW system.

In an effort to understand what those faculty think about tenure and possible alternatives, William G. Howell, the Sydney Stein Professor in American Politics at the Harris School of Public Policy, and Susan C. Mallaney, MPP’15, designed and distributed a survey to all 6,283 tenure and tenure-track faculty members in the UW system this past fall. The voluntary survey, which was supported by a grant from the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, was fielded over three days in September. It generated a high degree of interest and speculation and yielded a 22 percent response rate. 

Howell and Mallaney presented their findings at two events in Madison yesterday, first to members of the Wisconsin media and later to members of the faculty. (The presentation and summary statistics have also been made available to anyone who is interested in viewing them.)

“When evaluating the results of this survey, as with all surveys, it is important to carefully assess the context in which it was fielded and the method by which the data were collected," Howell explained.  “This survey was conducted in a highly political environment, and for a whole host of reasons we should not characterize its results as representing anything other than the opinions of the individuals who responded. The survey does not speak for all UW tenured and tenure-track faculty.”

Still, the findings are instructive, particularly considering the paucity of data on what faculty think about this important issue. Highlights from the survey include:

•    Nearly 90 percent of respondents said they would consider leaving the state if the system of tenure were replaced with renewable contracts.
•    Sizable majorities would be less likely to discuss controversial topics in the classroom, less likely to conduct controversial research projects, and less likely to conduct ambitious research if renewable contracts were put in place.
•    64.5% of respondents strongly oppose the use of renewable contracts for future hires, and 86.4% believe the approach would make it more challenging to attract quality candidates.
•    A majority of the faculty report that tenure successfully distinguishes faculty based on their research achievements and performance in the classroom either always or most of the time.
•    Faculty were less supportive of post-tenure review, with nearly half reporting it is valuable and half reporting it is a pro-forma exercise.

Despite the charged environment in which the survey was conducted, Howell believes the findings offer valuable insight to Wisconsin faculty and policymakers. “Careful empirical research is always a crucial piece of any informed policy discussion, but it is particularly important when the discussions turn to politically controversial and highly salient issues,” Howell said.